NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — As Black History Month continues, we take a look at a new initiative that aims to bring soccer into underserved neighborhoods that never had a public field.
The goal is to change who is playing the game and gaining opportunity from the sport.READ MORE: Black History Is Our History: Bronx-Born Alicia Guevara First Woman To Run Big Brothers Big Sisters Of New York City
Tim Howard is recognized as one of the greatest goal keepers in U.S. soccer.
Look carefully, though, and you’ll see other players don’t really look like him. In the states, professionally and in some youth leagues, many of these athletes are white.
“Soccer community, particularly in underserved and underdeveloped urban communities, is lacking. The leadership and the accessibility to fields,” Howard told CBS2’s Otis Livingston.
But now, that may be changing.
“They want an outlet, they want an option and that’s what we’re here to do,” Howard said.
It’s a new program through the Players Development Academy, PDA Soccer Urban Initiative. They quietly opened a brand new soccer field last August in New Brunswick. The formal dedication was in January.
“Soccer is becoming the most popular sport in New Brunswick,” New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill said.
“We bring a local champion like Tim Howard, too, who looks like us, as always, you know, something that is a plus,” said Keith Jones, director of human and community services for New Brunswick.
Jones and Howard grew up in the area and know there are limited opportunities for kids of color to engage in the sport.
“So we’re working with houses of worship, we’re working with New Brunswick Middle School, New Brunswick High School, some of our community groups,” Jones said.READ MORE: Black History Is Our History: New York City Marathon Director Remembers Trailblazing Long-Distance Runner Ted Corbitt
Former professional basketball player Randy Foye also grew up in Jersey, under difficult circumstances. Now retired, his daughters play for PDA. He’s working with Urban Initiative too.
“With these initiatives and with these fields, it’s just giving hope to the kids that look like me and look like others who had no hope,” Foye said.
Foye believes change can happen, even if it’s one kid at a time.
“Sports bring people together and can it change? Black history can. Can it change soccer in these urban areas? Absolutely. Because if basketball can do it for a kid like me, that grew up in New Jersey with no parents, struggled from the beginning … It probably would take shape in a different sport, which is soccer,” Foye said.
Officials say the new field attracted local kids the day it opened. PDA coach and Urban Initiative founder Gerry McKeown is on board to change the profile of the game, offering PDA’s total support.
“We are the only country in the world where it’s not a poor person’s game. In our country, it’s a rather wealthy person’s game because of the tuition involved and because of the logistics of getting across country and everything else,” McKeown said.
Sports writer Bill Rhoden says the game, and society, have a long way to go
“I’m not so sure if the powers that be in soccer want soccer in the United States to look like the NBA and look like the NFL,” he said.
But he adds it’s an important step that at least the conversation has started.
“Do you want soccer to really look like the United States? I think that we’re at least at the point where people are seriously asking that question I don’t think that we’ve seriously asked,” Rhoden said.MORE NEWS: Black History Is Our History: Inside Brooklyn’s Historic Plymouth Church, A Station On The Underground Railroad
The goal is once the Urban Initiative Program is fully up and running in New Brunswick, the plan is to expand to other areas like Newark, Trenton and Camden, and then to take it nationally.